6 min read


Can Dogs Be Used for Therapy?



6 min read


Can Dogs Be Used for Therapy?


Comfort and companionship are critical to persons who are struggling with mental health, physical challenges, disasters, or difficult life transitions. In such trying and difficult situations, therapists and helping service providers have come to recognize the many benefits of time spent with therapy dogs.  

First, there is just the warm and fuzzy feeling we experience when we have the opportunity to pet and interact with a four-legged, furry friend. The interactions bring feelings of happiness, and opportunity to share moments with another living creature - a chance to get up, take a walk and be in the world while distracting us from our difficulties. 

The good news is that a visit from a therapy dog is not just a good time playing with a dog (as if there is every anything wrong with that!) but there is data from research demonstrating that there are many beneficial physiological and psychological benefits that come from a visit with a therapy dog.


Signs a Dog is Good for Therapy

Dogs that are most suitable to be therapy dogs must have the right disposition. The traits that are a match for being a therapy dog include being obedient, allowing strangers to pet them, not easily excited, and the ability to be calm around people who are unsteady on their feet. 

The therapy dog must be clean and well-groomed to go visiting with clients. The best therapy dogs are mellow and friendly. Cute and playful dogs can be good therapy dogs too, so long as they can attend to social commands.

The therapy dog provides comfort by their presence and the friendly behaviors that are conveyed by their body movements. They are well socialized and are listening to the words and tone of the interactions with both the handler and the recipients. They have an alert disposition that makes them responsive to the persons around them. The recipient will notice the friendly disposition of the dog by the animal's tilting of the head and wagging tail.

There are breeds known for the ability to serve others as therapy dogs. The St. Bernard is known as a gentle giant who is affectionate and protective. The Poodle is not only a beauty but also is smart, instinctive and responsive to humans. The Golden Retriever is a perfect therapy dog with his friendly disposition. 

The cuteness factor works for many of the smaller breeds. The Pug is not only a cutie but loves to be petted. The Corgi is a gentle dog, known as family-friendly and well suited for therapy visits. The Bichon Frise is bred to be hypoallergenic making them a perfect fit in hospitals and around people who are not well. A dog that craves attention and is irresistibly cute is the French Bulldog.

Therapy dogs like to be petted and are very accepting of petting from strangers. A good rub and scratch behind the ears is gratifying to both the human and dog. Therapy dogs are obedient animals and they take direction well. 

They are able to remain under the control of their handler in all kinds of circumstances by literally following the lead. Their obedience is also found in their good manners. You will not find a therapy dog jumping on people or straying to sniff out adventures. They stay focused on their job, which is to pay attention to the people for their therapy visit.

Body Language

Here are some signs that a good therapy dog will show:<p></p>

  • Alert
  • Head Tilting
  • Listening
  • Wag Tail

Other Signs

Some further qualities that therapy dogs show include:

  • Liking To Be Petted By New People
  • Obedience And Following Directions
  • Having Good Manners For Being Around People
  • Staying Focused On Their Job

The History of Therapy Dogs


Smoky the Yorkshire Terrier is known as the first therapy dog. Smoky belonged to Corporal Bill Wynne, who adopted her when she was found in a foxhole while he was in New Guinea. The Japanese were attacking the men at the Allied airfield at Lingayen Gulf on Luzon in the Philippine Islands. They needed to run a communication line through a 70-foot pipe that was eight inches in diameter and underground.  

They ingeniously tied the line to a kite string and sent Smoky through the trench, being coaxed by his owner. Smoky made it and she was credited with saving the lives of some 250 men and 40 planes that day.

After Wynne adopted Smoky, he caught dengue fever and he was sent to the hospital for five days. Smoky came with him, sleeping at his feet and, of course, charming the nurses. But while she was there in the hospital, the staff noted that Smoky was lifting the spirits of the patients. Smoky would entertain them with her tricks and her play, chasing butterflies.

Word of her therapeutic effects spread, and when Wynne was on leave, he was invited to bring Smoky to visit the wounded and ill soldiers in the hospitals. By 1947, civilians were volunteering over 700 dogs to serve as therapy dogs. Smoky retired in 1955, and she died in her sleep two years later in 1957 at the age of 14. She was remembered as "an instrument of love."

Today, therapy dogs are used in a variety of settings. They can be found sharing compassionate time with humans in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, day care centers, rehabilitation centers, and in situations in which people have experienced a disaster or trauma. Let us not forget the needs of our military service women and men who participate in projects with therapy dogs as part of their reconnection to civilian life. 

There is an important distinction between service dogs and therapy dogs. A service dog has been trained to do tasks and to do work that helps or services a person with a disability. Service dogs have a "no petting" policy. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of persons with disabilities to have a service dog accompany them into public settings to help them be independent. 

A therapy dog is very different than a service dog. A therapy dog is a volunteer. The job of the therapy dog is to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers. The therapy dogs can be petted and have the disposition to be social with strangers, providing comfort and companionship. Some will be used in Animal Assisted Therapy conjointly with a professional therapist. 

The Science of Dog Therapy


Dogs can be highly effective therapists and science is discovering the emotional and physiological effects of their interventions. Studies of Animal Assisted Therapy have reliably demonstrated that persons experienced positive outcomes and improved emotional well-being. 

This mainly benefits persons with autism, behavioral disorders, or medical conditions. Animals have also helped persons with depression, schizophrenia or addiction. The experience of spending time with an animal is healing.

There is science to that healing experience. Studies on hormonal changes during therapy sessions have established that there are positive hormonal changes during human and dog interactions. Oxytocin is the love hormone, associated with bonding and affection. The hormone oxytocin increases when interacting with a dog. 

Additionally, the act of petting a dog decreases levels of stress hormones, lowers blood pressure and leads to increased regulation of breathing. Studies on the ability of dogs to show empathy have demonstrated that dogs will go to persons in distress, providing comforting behaviors such as nuzzling. 

Training Your Therapy Dog


There are a number of organizations that will support owners in learning how to train their dogs to become therapy animals. The American Kennel Club started a program at the request of owners who wanted acknowledgement of the great work the dogs are doing. The organization offers therapy dog titles that build on the animal skills for being good citizens and well socialized. 

The training of the dog begins by first owning a dog with a social disposition. Good basic training with a puppy is the entry point to teaching your dog to follow commands, be obedient, and to enjoy the interaction of praise of interacting with people. 

From there, you may want to find a therapy dog class. The class will give you and your dog practice interacting with others. The experiences will teach your dog how to approach others, allow petting, and how to stay calm. 

Organizations, such as the Therapy Dogs International will evaluate your dog's readiness as a therapy dog. The types of skills assessed include: allowing persons to inspect his body and paws, sitting and waiting with the handler out of sight, group sit/stay, group down/stay, visiting with a paitent by sitting and allowing the patient to pet, reactions to situations, "leave it", meeting another dog, and reacting to children.

Where to begin with your training? Start early with your puppy! Begin by assessing your dog's disposition. Your dog will need to be submissive but not fearful. Start your training by touching your dog. Play with your dog. Encourage time and experiences that teach your dog to like being with people. And expose your dog to people in a variety of situations so that your dog will get used to meeting people in new environments. 

While building these social opportunities, provide good basic training so that you have good control of your dog and he learns good manners. The compassion will grow from these positive training experiences together.

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Safety Tips for Therapy Dogs

  1. Train your dog to follow basic commands.
  2. Use a leash when in public.
  3. Limit therapy times and give the dog breaks.
  4. Check out the situation before taking your dog.

By a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Published: 02/02/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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